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Don't prejudge Haneef


The utter sensationalism, bias and hysteria that has attended most reportage and commentary on the arrest and detention of Haneef Ahmed in Australia is now being progressively exposed for its irrationality and error, as a few sane voices begin to put things in a perspective that has some connection to reality. Regrettably, the media frenzy has substantially been fed by - and, in turn, has fed - the responses of the Indian Government at the highest level, creating a cycle of disinformation that can only bring all parties to contempt.

I recall the deep frustration we felt when Western Governments stonewalled India on all cases relating to Khalistani terrorist activities, safe havens, mobilisation, funding and propaganda in foreign countries, during the period of terrorism in Punjab. Before they were jerked awake by 9/11 and subsequent Islamist attacks on Western targets, no amount of evidence was ever enough to convince these countries that a fugitive being demanded by India on extradition was actually a terrorist. Progressive disclosures relating to the Kanishka bombing conspiracy in Canada - which resulted in 329 deaths - have demonstrated the degree to which Western agencies were willing to ignore terrorist activities directed against India from their soil.

The boot is now on the other foot, and, in the Haneef case, we are behaving as unreasonably towards Australia as various Western powers did toward India. It needs to be clearly emphasised that there are no allegations that Haneef has been mistreated, tortured or otherwise discriminated against. He has been held in custody in connection with an extraordinarily serious crime - the failed terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow - on incontrovertible evidence, his SIM card, that ties him directly to the terrorists. No investigative agency will treat such a link lightly, and Australian authorities have indicated that there is other evidence that has not yet been disclosed (rightly, in view of the systematic leaks by defence lawyers and the process of trial by the Press that is currently ongoing).

In any event, the investigations into this case span three countries - the UK, India and Australia - and no enforcement authority will allow a suspect to go free until all the evidence has been assessed. This is inevitable where such close linkages to terrorists - if not to terrorist activity - are demonstrated, and even if Haneef is innocent, it remains the regrettable case that his troubles will not end until the investigations are concluded.

The Indian media has repeatedly paraded Haneef's family members, including his mother and his wife, and treated their testimonies as incontrovertible proof of his 'innocence'. While this crude theatre of the 'pornography of other people's suffering' may be good for TRP ratings, and may even inspire India's Prime Minister to comment, it has absolutely no evidentiary value.

In a long career in policing, including extended tenures dealing with insurgencies and terrorism, I have only rarely come across a family of a criminal or terrorist who is willing to admit the culpability of their son, brother, husband or other close relative, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Haneef's parents and wife in India cannot have any conclusive knowledge of his activities in the UK or in Australia - and his innocence or guilt would need to be demonstrated on altogether different grounds.

Concerns have also been expressed over the decision to hold Haneef in solitary confinement. Apart from the basis of this decision in Australian law, this is perhaps the most humane decision that could have been taken. Australian authorities have discreetly spoken of 'privacy', but the truth is, such a measure is best for Haneef's protection.

Few people in India are, perhaps, acquainted with the curious case Dhiren Barot aka Issa al Britani aka Abu Issa al Hindi, the Kenyan-born Britisher of Indian ethnicity, who converted to Islam and joined Al Qaeda in plotting to detonate a radioactive 'dirty bomb' and to commit other acts of mass terrorism in the UK. Barot was convicted on these charges in October 2006 and sentenced to 30 years in prison. On July 16, 2007, Barot was attacked by other prisoners at the maximum security Frankland Prison in Durham, and was permanently disfigured after boiling water and, later, boiling oil, was thrown over him.

There is a well-established policy in Western detention centres that holds certain categories of detenues, including paedophiles and terrorists, both suspected and convicted, in isolated facilities or solitary confinement for their own safety.

None of these considerations have found much space in the frenetic reportage on the issue, which has been entirely prejudged. This has become a staple of successive media trials that have taken place on high profile cases in the recent past. In almost every case, a terrorist is never a terrorist - often even after he has been convicted, and his conviction upheld by a succession of courts, right up to the Supreme Court. On the other hand, we find that the police are always - with or without evidence - guilty of 'human rights violations' irrespective of the actual evidence, or of the procedural integrity of their actions.

All generalisations are subject to exception, but it is increasingly the case that most media organisations in India have become propagandists, resorting to outright falsehoods, 'sloganising' every issue, routinely abusing and demonising particular parties, while others are shielded or exempted from even the most cursory examination or censure.

Thomas Jefferson once remarked that the man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers. The deep ignorance of history, fact, process and law that characterises news organisations today - and most prominently the electronic media - has trivialised and distorted the gravest and most momentous concerns of our age, and there appears to be an inverse relationship between the power and reach of the media in India and its adherence to any acceptable standards of reportage and conduct.

A deep arrogance is compounding profound ignorance to produce some of the most unfortunate commentaries on the Haneef case. We must not prejudge Haneef. This means, essentially, that, till investigation is complete and all the evidence is in, we must not conclude either that he is guilty or innocent.

The Australian investigative authorities are best positioned to assess the evidence currently at hand, and unless there is clear indication of abuse, torture, racism or procedural irregularities, we must invest our faith in their system, even as we hope that, when our turn comes, others will find it possible to trust our far more imperfect systems.

(Published in The Pioneer, July 21, 2007)





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